The questions all flow from Perry’s apparent belief that the Social Security system is unconstitutional. Since becoming a candidate for president, Perry has been pressed to say whether he really believes that. Romney is clearly frustrated that Perry hasn’t answered. Perry has resisted for some obvious reasons.
A “yes” would prompt difficult follow-up questions, of the type Romney’s campaign posed in a release Wednesday morning: If it’s unconstitutional, how would you turn the program into something administered by the states? A “no” would leave Perry open to charges that he is a flip-flopper. If Social Security is, as Perry wrote in his book, “Fed Up,” a “crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal . . . all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government,” then radical and risky changes are in order.
The two campaigns see the politics of this debate far differently. Romney’s team is convinced that Perry’s writings on Social Security are a huge vulnerability, based on decades of evidence that any politician who suggests drastic changes in the government’s retirement security program pays a huge price.
Perry’s advisers believe that, if that risk were still true, the Texas governor would be falling like a stone in a state like Florida and perhaps nationally. Given the current state of the Republican Party, heavily influenced by tea party activists eager to see Washington cut down to size and more power given to the states and individuals, Perry’s team believes that the governor’s provocative talk has found a friendly audience.
The first two debates have not produced a definitive answer as to which campaign is correct. Perry’s decision in the first debate not to back away from the thrust of what he had written provided an opening for Romney. Perry’s performance in the second debate showed that he would like to dance a bit longer before getting pinned down on how he would reform or fix the system.
Romney hopes that the third debate will push Perry to explain what those reforms might be. Perry’s advisers sound as if they are in no hurry to do so, and certainly not on a stage in Orlando surrounded by Romney and other rivals for the nomination.
Perry could hold true to the spirit of what his book says and propose a radical change in the Social Security system. But nothing he has said or done in the past 10 days suggests that he is willing to be so bold.
He could continue making robust attacks on Washington and using 10th Amendment rhetoric to hail the power of the states, while quietly acknowledging that after more than 70 years, Social Security is likely to remain a federal program in some form or fashion. He would be free to offer reforms to the system that would shore up long-term financing problems and, as former President George W. Bush proposed, allow individuals the option of setting up private accounts.